Data gaze in Scottish universities

Religious focus in diversity data from Scottish academic recruitment

Prinsloo (2020) demonstrates where the data frontiers exist in South African education and how closely the data gaze follows the old colonial ways. Moved and repelled by the power of the data gaze I wondered if I could collect data in Scotland that also followed institutionalised prejudice. I gathered data from a repository of academic job vacancies in the UK. Narrowing the search to Scotland, I could only find five jobs currently advertised. I started the application process to access the diversity data section and recorded the religious and ethnic data they sought. Once data were gathered I cancelled the application.

Diversity data are used to record the religious beliefs, ethnicity, gender, nationality, age and sexual orientation of applicants. Some other categories may also be collected. The aim of collecting data on these protected characteristics (which are not shared with decision-makers in the recruitment process) is to assess the diversity within these institutions. Employers are required by law to collect these data and they are ostensibly for the purposes of supporting diversity and eradicating discrimination. Although these data may appear beneficial or at least neutral, the Scottish Government does not mandate the specific categories of data collected, these are subject to each institution and can reflect the unconscious (or conscious) bias of those who draw them up. We should begin by asking why these specific data are deemed important to these institutions? Or why biases are not picked up even as the applications are vetted by numerous individuals before posting.

The visualisation above shows the five universities observed with circles for different religions. The radius is measured according to the number of denominations that can be selected, so more diverse choices are represented by larger circles. In all cases only Christians could choose more than one denomination. This suggests an unconscious bias at play with an acknowedgement of specifics sects in Christianity whilst others are simply Muslim or Hindu etc. Every other religion had only one choice. Most of the universities also viewed Christian diversity as simply Protestant or Catholic, these had at most three choices: Christian, Protestant or Roman Catholic. Stirling and Napier simply wanted to know if Christian applicants were Protestant or Catholic, with no option for simply Christian. This is quite problematic for a country with a history and ongoing sectarian issue. The data here are anything but neutral, they are formed from ongoing (hopefully) unconscious bias. Why would these universities care whether you are Catholic or Protestant but not about whether you are Sunni or Shia, or a Shaktist Hindu? I also noticed that two universties also had a Scottish ethnic group but no English or Welsh ethnic group, these were presumably simply British? Again this reflects an uncritical and quite stereotypical view of Scotland’s neighbours.

2 thoughts on “Data gaze in Scottish universities

  1. This is fascinating. There have been some interesting previous studies about the categories included in censuses–basically, the categories included by the census-maker help to construct possible forms of identification. I understand, for example, that “ethnic Canadian” only became a category on the Canadian census in the 1970s or 80s. It invented the possibility of calling one’s self ethnically Canadian. As Evelyn Ruppert has noted, “The census is thus understood as a particular way of defining, collecting and organising social observations about individuals and not a simple reflection of an empirically existing reality” ( There is much here that resonates with this course I think, and with your observations about diversity data collection. How can such data be used for forms of governance? When my family and I first moved to Scotland in 2012, we were quite shocked by how it was possible to be ethnic Scottish but not English or Welsh. I’ve long wondered if it was related to the nationalist and independence agenda, as a distinctive form of identification, and if so, for what governing purposes. I’m really looking forward to your final observations for this theme next time.

  2. Love the focus on this, especially that it is connected to what I constantly harp on in both courses. Neurodiversity isn’t a category huh? Or did it fall under disability? This many ND people see as harmful. Actually, UoE lists it as ‘impairment’, ouch.
    It also links to what I said, after Ozga, about the reliability of the data – if it is incomplete, how can it be reliable? Here, if, say, the Ministry of Education wanted to actively write some inclusion in, they would have a tough time. One university will have the specific data, the other won’t. One big mess!

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